Rafting the Ocoee

Olympic-Class Thrills on Tennessee's Ocoee River

I want to make one thing clear: I did not fall out of the boat.

The boat fell out from around me.

When the raft got sucked down into a hole of violently churning whitewater, I simply stayed in place, paddling furiously in midair, like Wily E. Coyote in that moment before gravity kicks in.

It didn't matter that Tennessee's Ocoee River ranks among Canoe Magazine's top ten stretches of whitewater in America, or that this ten-mile section features some 20 Class III and IV rapids, or even that this was the very course used for the canoe/kayak slalom in the 1996 Olympic Games.

No, all that counted was that I had an audience for my unintentional dip.

I popped out of the raft right as we passed the Ocoee Whitewater Center off U.S. Rte. 64/74. Dozens of landlubbers were strewn along the rocky shoreline to watch the parade of rafts tackling the whitewater and kayaking virtuosos honing their freestyle skills.

One of the people watching was my girlfriend, to whom I had—rather foolishly—given my camera for safekeeping.

So, while there are no pictures of my five raftmates and me thrashing and high-siding through the gnarly rapids of Let's Make a Deal, Blue Hole, and Slam Dunk, there is a series of photographs of me getting spiked at Humongous—the largest rapid on the Upper Ocoee—then flailing about in the whitewater while clinging to the side of the raft.

Stuck Between a Rock and A Hard Current
I had intended to photograph other parts of the river, especially the calm stretches through the big, piney quiet of the Cherokee National Forest.

However, I lost my waterproof camera when, about 15 feet down river of the put-in site, we managed to wrap the raft around a rock.

The Upper Ocoee averages 1,400 cubic feet of water per second (that's 628,320 gallons every minute), a swift current that kept us pinned against the rock and up to our bellies in surging water throughout twenty minutes of aborted rescue attempts that would have been comical had the water not been so very cold.

While our trainee rafting guide repeatedly failed to catch the lifelines thrown by his colleagues onshore, we busied ourselves fruitlessly trying to fight the river by hauling on the submerged edges of the raft, occasionally pausing to let our teeth chatter and to throw dirty looks at passing boats in more skilled hands.

Finally, we wrenched our rubber dinghy far enough around the rock that the powerful current suddenly worked in our favor. The river grabbed our raft, spun it into the stream, and we were on our way to nearly four hours of whitewater thrills...and a little unscheduled swimming.

Floating through the heart of Southern Appalachia
In the very southeastern corner of Tennessee, 60 miles east of Chattanooga, the Ocoee River flows through the Cherokee National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r8/cherokee) at the point where it rubs branches with Georgia's Chatahoochee National Forest (where the river changes names to Toccoa) and North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest.

The Ocoee isn't quite the pristine river it seems. In the 1940s the Tennessee Valley Authority reduced it to a mere stream with a series of hydroelectric dams.

Some years, the Ocoee ran dry, but changes in the 1970s brought it back, freestyle kayakers began flocking here, and by the mid-1980s the boaters had worked out a scheme with the authorities to open the sluice gates on weekends, allowing the river to flow.

Then the Olympics came to town.

The gorge below the dam was cleaned up, boulders were cemented into the basin to make it a more perfect Olympic-caliber slalom run, and voilá: Tennessee suddenly had world-class rapids it could turn on and off with the flick of a switch.

Running the River
The whitewater now runs on a set schedule. The Upper Ocoee, including the Olympic course, runs weekends-only early May through late September.

The Middle Ocoee runs weekends mid-March through early November, extended to Thursday through Monday in June to August.

Most of the 30 local rafting and kayaking outfitters offer the opportunity to run either section in 1-3 hours, or both sections in 3-6 hours.

I rafted with Wildwater Ltd. of Ducktown, TN (800-451-9972, www.wildwaterrafting.com). It charges $45–50 per person for either the Upper Ocoee or the Middle Ocoee (ro do both for $90–$100). Sundays are $5 cheaper than Saturday runs.

For supplies, hit Hometown Foods, a grocery store straddling the state line. (The frozen foods section is in Copperhill, TN; the cash registers are in McCaysville, GA. There's even a state line, painted in blue, running through the middle of this tiny twinned town.)

For dinner overlooking the river, head to the Toccoa Riverside Restaurant in Blue Ridge, GA (706-632-7891, www.toccoariverside.com), for scrumptious pecan-crusted trout and barbecued baby back ribs. Entertainment is provided by a couple of old-timers in the corner, plucking guitars and singing mountain music.

Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2013.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.